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Group launches effort to explore ballot initiative restoring abortion access in Idaho


Group launches effort to explore ballot initiative restoring abortion access in Idaho

Apr 19, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Kelcie Moseley-Morris
Group launches effort to explore ballot initiative restoring abortion access in Idaho
An abortion rights rally at the Idaho Capitol in May 2022. A group of residents have formed a 501(c)(4) political action organization called Idahoans United for Women and Families to explore a 2026 ballot initiative that would restore access to reproductive care statewide, including abortion. (Christina Lords/Idaho Capital Sun)

Following a legislative session with no action taken to clarify or amend Idaho’s near-total abortion ban, some residents have formed a political group called Idahoans United for Women and Families to explore options for a possible 2026 ballot initiative that would restore and protect access to reproductive care statewide, including abortion.

Idaho has a near-total ban on abortion with narrow exceptions for rape and incest during the first trimester of pregnancy and to save the pregnant patient’s life. Those prosecuted for performing an abortion are subject to two to five years in prison and the revocation of their medical license, along with potential civil lawsuits by family members of the person who terminated a pregnancy.

“Now that the session is over, and in the absence of a remedy, we are moving full steam ahead,” said Melanie Folwell, the group’s spokesperson. 

Idaho is losing OB-GYNs after strict abortion ban. But health exceptions unlikely this year.

Idaho has a citizen ballot initiative process, but only the Legislature can propose constitutional amendments. So unlike several other states that are attempting to use ballot initiatives to amend the state constitution to include abortion rights, the initiative language for this effort must come in the form of proposed legislation for voters to approve. What that language would say is to be determined, Folwell said, particularly because the state has passed many laws related to abortion over the years that may be difficult to untangle with one piece of legislation. 

The ballot initiative process requires involvement from the attorney general’s office, which is responsible for certifying the petition in conjunction with the secretary of state’s office. After the petition is approved, organizers can gather signatures for 18 months before April 30 of the election year, and must meet a signature threshold equal to at least 6% of registered voters from the prior election in 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. Based on the 18-month window given by Idaho law, signature gathering could begin as early as this fall.

Folwell said the purpose of launching this early is to start an awareness campaign and to raise funds that would be used to consult legal experts in forming the ballot language, as well as legal fees for anticipated battles with the Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s office. 

Dan Estes, spokesperson for Labrador’s office, said without details of what the proposed language would be, he did not have a comment. 

Individuals involved with the group have already raised funds once for a poll commissioned in 2022, and Folwell said people were eager to help fund that effort. She said she anticipates being able to raise the necessary funds from within the state, and that may be the only option. Idahoans United for Women and Families is a 501(c)(4) group that can take unlimited donations that are not tax deductible. 

“We will be pursuing the support of national organizations as we move forward, and we look forward to them coming to the table to support this work, but if we do need to go it alone, we are willing and able to do that,” she said.


Eastern Idaho board member: Abortion decisions shouldn’t involve government


Idaho’s ban went into effect in August 2022, and in that time, 22% of practicing OB-GYNs have left the state, along with half of the state’s maternal-fetal medicine specialists. Three clinics across the state closed their maternal services, forcing some to drive more than an hour each way for routine maternity care. Hospitals and clinics have also reported difficulty recruiting new OB-GYNs and specialists to fill those empty spaces, citing a significant drop in out-of-state applications for positions. Dr. Sara Thomson, an OB-GYN in Boise and a representative of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said at an April event that 58 of 268 OB-GYNs had left the state or retired between August 2022 and November 2023, and over the same time period, just two OBs moved to the state to practice. 

Maternal care doctors have routinely told lawmakers that the way the law is written makes it difficult to feel confident that if they needed to terminate a pregnancy for a patient experiencing significant complications that could affect their health, not just threaten their life, they would not be prosecuted or lose their license. Rather than potentially violate their oath to do no harm to a patient through delays in care or refusal to treat someone, many doctors have elected to practice in states that do not have criminal abortion laws.

Summer Jackman, board member for Idahoans United for Women and Families
Summer Jackman, a lifelong Idahoan who owns a small business and is a mother of three in Pocatello, is a board member for Idahoans United for Women and Families. (Courtesy of Summer Jackman)

Summer Jackman, a lifelong Idahoan, small business owner and mother of three in Pocatello, is one of the board members for Idahoans United for Women and Families. She said she does not believe in unrestricted access to abortion, but she does believe in “common sense laws” that allow women to make decisions between themselves and their doctors. She is an unaffiliated voter who said she believes in limited government. 

“I don’t like the idea that a woman has to literally be nearly dead before a physician feels comfortable moving ahead with a procedure,” Jackman said. 

Jackman added that her oldest daughter is starting nursing school in Utah, and is hesitant to return to Idaho after she’s done with school because of the law. 

One of the reasons she decided to speak out, she said, is because she thinks many people agree on the topic of abortion but there is an unwillingness to talk about it openly because it has been painted as a divisive topic. 

“The environment of it being very black and white; you’re either pro-life or pro-choice. I just think that’s a false narrative that we’ve been presented with for so long,” she said. “I hate that we can’t talk about it with more compassion, empathy, science and common sense without the fear of having it be one way or the other.”  


Poll results in Idaho consistent with nationwide opinions


In August 2022, a poll conducted by FM3 Research surveyed 603 likely voters in Idaho through a combination of calls, emails and texts soliciting their opinions on abortion and abortion policy. The poll has a margin of error of 4%. 

The results showed 59% of those surveyed believe abortion should be legal in almost all cases or in some cases with restrictions, while 28% said it should be legal in “just a few” cases. And when presented with a question about the decision of having an abortion, 63% said it should be a decision made between a woman, her family and her doctor rather than a matter to be legislated and enforced by law. 

Nationwide, recent polling from KFF Health shows 66% of registered voters believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 17% thought it should be illegal in all cases. 

Another 63% of Idahoans surveyed said they strongly or somewhat oppose making it a felony for a health care provider to perform or attempt to perform an abortion, while 31% said they somewhat or strongly support it. 

Mike Conner, a pastor at First United Methodist Church in Pocatello, Idaho
Mike Conner, a pastor at First United Methodist Church in Pocatello, Idaho, and board member of Idahoans United for Women and Families. (Courtesy of Mike Conner)

Mike Conner, a pastor at First United Methodist Church in Pocatello, moved to Idaho in 2021 and his second child, a girl, was born in October 2022, not long after the ban went into effect. He said the experience is part of what made him decide to get involved with the reproductive rights group as a board member, because his wife’s second pregnancy was in its final weeks when the law changed.

“We couldn’t really get clear answers from the professionals we were working with about how decisions would be made and what would happen, and who would have authority to make decisions if something went really wrong during delivery,” Conner said. “And that made us really afraid.”

He said one of the statistics that stuck out to him from the polling was the 78% of those surveyed who said they would support someone they knew who had an abortion even if they didn’t agree with the decision. 

“Once it enters your own sphere of relationships and intimacy, your goodwill toward your neighbor sort of overrides the disembodied ideas you have,” he said. “I think if we love one another enough to support each other as we make hard decisions, then we should have policies that reflect and give space to that reality.”


Recent comments from lawmakers fueled decision to launch now 


Despite early optimism from some Republicans, including Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, that the Legislature would consider legislation adding exceptions to the ban to preserve a pregnant patient’s health rather than just prevent their death, the legislation did not materialize. Crane told the Idaho Capital Sun in March that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider the state’s case against the U.S. Department of Justice about whether the abortion ban can overrule federal law when it comes to emergency abortion care is the reason no legislation came forward. 

Idaho Democrats condemn legislative inaction on addressing issues related to state’s abortion ban

But even if Republicans bring legislation in 2025, Crane said, it will likely be in the form of a government-produced educational video about the laws for physicians to follow, similar to the legislation passed in South Dakota earlier this year. He told the Sun based on conversations he’s had with providers, hospital legal counsel is being “disingenuous” about the law’s vagueness interfering with standard medical care and health exception legislation isn’t necessary. 

“You have to understand that Idaho is a pro-life state. Elective abortions are no longer going to be legal in the state of Idaho. That ship has sailed, and you have to understand that,” Crane said he has told doctors. “Instead of continuing to try to use different issues to try to undo Idaho’s abortion statute, you’re going to have to learn how to work inside of Idaho’s framework.” 

In a post-legislative session press conference, Republican Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, R-Star, also cast doubt on the idea that doctors were leaving the state because of the law, saying it might be a “convenient excuse.”

Folwell said the comments underscored the need for the group’s action. 

“What we’re hearing from patients and doctors is not, ‘Gosh, I really wish I could figure out how to care for my patients with the help of a government-produced video,’” Folwell said. “We have heard from a lot of people on this issue, and convenience has never been mentioned once. … We’re talking about doctors having to uproot their entire professional and personal life to safely practice. None of this is about convenience.” 

Bans Off Our Bodies march in Boise
A Bans Off Our Bodies rally attendee sits on the steps the Idaho Statehouse on May 14, 2022. The rally, put on by Planned Parenthood and other Idaho groups, was one of many organized across the country in response to a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that threatens the constitutionality of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. (Christina Lords/Idaho Capital Sun)